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Welcome to the School of Hard Knocks: How to Get Hired by Established Filmmakers

By Miri Hess

I have had job interviews and meetings with some of the best independent documentary filmmakers around. Some of them hired me for paying jobs; others offered me positions working for free; one didn't want to properly administer credit; another tested me out through a trial period of unpaid work. The last led to a paid position.

Many prestigious filmmakers often say they have no money to hire while in development and in early stages of production, yet they want the labor. They offer unpaid work because they can get someone to fill the spot—usually a college student or a recent graduate, but sometimes even more seasoned professionals.

So I set out to find out more about the particulars of the School of Hard Knocks. I talked to established filmmakers who do the hiring, and to aspiring filmmakers who have taken on the low-level positions as the first step in a career path. 

Two successful Academy- and Emmy Award-nominated filmmakers, Eddie Schmidt and Kirby Dick, who worked together on such films as This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006) and Twist of Faith (2005), have met with me many times over the years, generously sharing advice and documentary wisdom. They're the kind of professionals who embrace a "pay-it-forward" ethos towards emerging filmmakers. I spoke to them about hiring interns, especially in light of recent lawsuits pertaining to internships, and if working for free in hopes of proving oneself is the norm. I wanted to find out what reputable filmmakers are looking for in a potential crew, as well as how they enable the career growth of those who work for them.

Some filmmakers try to push the limits with a more experienced professional because they think they will learn from working for them and assume the potential hired staffer values that over compensation. Schmidt has built a career working with such filmmakers as Morgan Neville (Troubadours, 2011), in addition to being hired for productions and creating his own collaborations. "There's a limit to the timing of free work," says Schmidt. "There is a difference between being hired for a position and being a creator or a developer. Lots of times people are starting up projects where you can have a producer role—that's not a paid thing; nobody is getting paid."

Producer Megan Parlen worked on This Film Is Not Yet Rated. She started as an intern and exemplifies what Schmidt looks for when hiring, as well as how he trains his staff. Parlen's first internship was at KNBC News, while she was attending the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. The corporate structure at KNBC actually dissuaded her from pursuing a career in broadcast journalism. Parlen currently works for actor Morgan Freeman's company, Revelations Entertainment, as the senior director of Factual Productions and is supervising producer on the Emmy-nominated Through the Wormhole on the Science Channel. She credits Schmidt for launching her career.

 "When Eddie gave me that AP title, I thought it was a huge leap and was worried if I'd be able to get another AP job after this because I kind of skipped a grade," Parlen explains. "But ultimately what it was about was being somebody Eddie could trust to be a representation of the team—someone who knows how to communicate with the network executives, who can take orders but who can also give orders to the PAs and interns to take pressure off him."

Like Parlen, Schmidt launched his career working as an unpaid production assistant on the feature Floundering (1994), then for free in the editing room for Dody Dorn, whom he dubs "one of the best editors in the world." They became friends, and she edited his festival short, and, along with Dick, they produced Chain Camera (2001), about Los Angeles high school students filming their own lives with video cameras.

The benefits of working for free outweighed the short-term pitfalls of the position. "I had to do the shittiest jobs on set," Schmidt explains. "I was in Venice, post- [1992] riots. People threw beer bottles at the equipment, and the crew treated me like crap. But I knew I had to apprentice." Having admiration for the director, he thought, "This is great! I also got to be in the film, but did I get paid? No. I got things that would be building blocks for a career." His post-production experience led to a job at New Line.

Nowadays, Schmidt offers meticulous training to his interns, teaching them about development, production, editing and distribution. "I was so impressed with the way Eddie trains people," says Dick. "Anybody working for him gets the most detailed, hands-on training to turn them into, in one case, an associate producer. He transferred so much of [his incredible knowledge] to the people he was working with."

Working for a filmmaker with the right mindset is also a key to success, Parlen says. "I worked with people who were very respectful and very quick to teach and mentor."

As for Dick, he upholds ideals of intelligence and commitment when hiring staff, in order to mirror his own work ethic. "I throw everything I have into it, and I really want other people to have that same approach," he explains. "Most of my films deal with social justice in one way or another, so it's good if they are passionate about that, as well as [have] a certain amount of daring to dive into something they are not experienced with. I like journalists a lot, too."

Tanner Barklow started as an intern for Dick and climbed the ladder very quickly. He was a co-producer on Outrage (2009) and a producer on The Invisible War (2012). "He understood politics, gay politics, and was extremely analytical and really willing to get his hands dirty with investigation, " Dick recalls. If an intern works out well, utilizing their strengths rather than focusing on their unpaid job title, they can persevere and even become equals of sorts. "Even when [Tanner] was an intern, it was a peer relationship where he was challenging me to do things," Dick says. "I might think to do it one way, and he would be in my face about doing it another. In several cases, it was his convincing me that was very important to the success of the film."

Two-time Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Ondi Timoner (We Live in Public, 2009; Dig!, 2004) works hard on multiple projects simultaneously and expects the same from her staff. I witnessed this first-hand, as she was a social media client of mine for her online show Bring Your Own Doc, which features interviews with documentary filmmakers. At least two of her recent staff worked their way up in their early 20s, starting out as assistants and becoming producers.

A common thread between Schmidt and Timoner is their need for their crew to predict situations or problems ahead of time and then solve them in a timely fashion. "I'm attracted to people who see something falling and pick it up," says Timoner. "I look for people with agency, for problem-solvers with a can-do attitude. I walk in the direction of the thing that needs to be fixed." 

I worked for Timoner for an unpaid week because that was her method. At my mid-level career point, I fought off feeling I should get paid for my time and work, but instead adapted to Timoner's way. Working for free for a short period of time led to a paying job, utilizing skills I already had, as well as giving me the opportunity to observe how Timoner ran her production company.

Internships can also provide a unique first-hand experience with hands-on training, as opposed to the bubble of graduate school. "A lot of people who go to film schools intern for me, and I hire them," explains Timoner. "Some of them even drop out of school because they are learning so much on their internship. I'm a big proponent of learning by doing." She emphasizes how tech entrepreneurs are dropping out of college and MBA programs to start their own companies and that filmmakers should be learning from their dedicated ways.

Julia Grimm started as an intern for Timoner, usually working 10-hour days, with plenty of 12-hour ones. After three months of interning, Grimm became a paid production coordinator and ended up working for Timoner for 11 months. "I worked really hard and made sure I was 100 percent reliable," Grimm explains. "We weren't paid overtime, but it is less about the money and more about the idea that you hope your superiors recognize the amount of time you really are putting in and give incentives to continue to do a good job, even if they can't do that monetarily." Her take-away was learning how to run a small business, along with the dos and the don'ts.

It seems to be the norm when working for independent filmmakers to work for free and then work your way up. Schmidt wrestles with the cliché of documentaries having no money. Filmmakers do make money from their previous films and on jobs as hired producers, directors and editors, and they could apply these funds towards their new film in development. "Especially with docs, there really isn't money," Schmidt explains. "I guess, yes, somebody could mortgage their house, but at that point, if I have to mortgage my house or re-mortgage my house, is it even worth it?"

While Timoner has had several assistants per year, in some cases, it's more by necessity than by choice. "I don't like having to retrain assistants," she says. "I think it's the nature of having very little funding and in hiring people who are younger, rather than somebody who is at my caliber and also at a point in their lives where they don't know who they are yet."

Livelihood and stability become a priority at a certain point in one's life, while a young person's priority is climbing the career ladder. "Documentary filmmakers don't have the money to hire somebody on a regular basis who has a couple of mortgages and kids to put through school, so we suffer for that,"  Timoner admits. "Every birthday, I blow out the candles wishing for a producing partner."

A filmmaker could allocate funds from the budget towards an intern, but the payoff is a larger gamble. Parlen explains, "Money put towards an intern is money taken away from what shows up on the screen or an editor."

Dick averages ten interns per year, and about once a year, he recruits an intern into a staff position. In addition to Barklow starting out as an intern, Dick's current assistant editor was also one. "It gives you time to work with them, evaluate and then realize you can work with them for a much longer period of time," Dick explains.        

Showing respect and gratitude on the part of the filmmaker goes a long way. Dick also has a long tradition of giving lunch to everybody in the office on a daily basis.  "It's like a surrogate family [in the office], in a way," Dick explains. "I think that's part of the experience people seem to really appreciate."

Schmidt aims to build strong, lasting relationships with his crew, rather than embrace temporary use of disposable labor. As he sees it, a team with a broad range of skills embodying leadership, intelligence and persistence helps contribute to long-term growth in his company. "It's very hard to trust people, and it's hard to click with people, so if you like somebody, and they prove themselves, you want to keep them around," he maintains.

And even if members of his team leave his company for positions elsewhere, Schmidt feels that he's accomplished something. "I feel great that people I have hired at a PA level became APs and producers—people I have really trusted and believed in have real careers," he says. "I'm really proud I could have any role in their development. If I am lucky enough to get them back, I would have to pay them more and share in the creative responsibilities."

However, Schmidt fears the entry-level positions may not last forever. "With the Black Swan intern lawsuit, and a whole wave of others that have followed, it's sad because I think you are going to see in entertainment, people are just not going to have interns," he warns. "You learn by doing, and it's a privilege, actually, to be having input on things if you are just starting out."

Parlen maintains that the unpaid experience can benefit both sides where the companies are coming from a logical place. "They do need the people to do the crappy work they can't afford to pay people to do," she says. "It is a lesson in work ethics they are teaching interns and also seeing who is willing to do whatever it takes to stay there. Ultimately, if you are a hard-working, determined person no matter what tasks you are doing, you are going to do them well, whether it's washing the dishes for the executives or researching."

Parlen separated herself from other interns with her ability to prepare for future situations, as well as maintain a positive attitude. "I always made it a point to be in a good mood and be an asset as opposed to a liability," she says. "It's free labor, but if the intern has enough negative qualities than you end up having to go back and redo their work or compensate for their bad energy."

Schmidt adds, "I really want somebody who can anticipate problems, not just react; it takes the burden off of me. As they prove themselves, you allow them to be in situations where they have to exercise judgment, ingenuity or think on their feet."

Whether a job interview leads to an internship offer or a paid position, being lucky and savvy enough to work for filmmakers who respect their crew, instigate a training plan, honor commitments and assess candidates who fit their specific needs can lead to being hired—and, most importantly, to long-term career growth.